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Elio Villafranca: Schoenberg's Cuban Street

By Published: October 6, 2003
'In that regard, it doesn't differ from North American jazz. In Cuba, Latin jazz doesn't work in economic terms. It isn't very popular. Most of the musicians that play Latin jazz have to make a living playing popular music or Salsa. Over there, only a highly selected group of musicians that play Latin jazz are supported by radio and TV broadcasts. They are the better-known stars from Cuba. Often times, for ideological reasons, they are the ones allowed to go out of the country. That's why they are better known internationally. Their music is transmitted because there are only two broadcast stations and, if the government airs them, the stations benefit. It is not because the Cuban people want to hear such music. Due to the lack of support, there are in Cuba many talented musicians unknown in the island and inexistent internationally speaking.'

Villafranca doesn't seem destined to the void of artistic inexistence, although leaving his native land was, and is, a painfully necessary step into living recognition. 'I wanted to leave Cuba because of music and not politics, as many assume every time they see a recently arrived Cuban in this country. While there, I accepted an invitation from the Asociaci'n de M'sicos Latino Americanos (AMLA) to teach in Philadelphia. I owe my arrival to the U.S. to my ex-wife and AMLA. Because of the way I left Cuba, I am allowed to visit my family and friends every year. Returning also let me keep close contact with my roots, something very important for my spirit and music. For instance, when I go to Cuba I observe the people, attend Afro Cuban religious ceremonies and walk through the streets, the beachfront and the tobacco farms. All that revives my nationalistic sentiments, that soul of mine that gives sense to my existence and grounds the foundations for my art.'

'Once I arrived to the U.S., I was fortunate to be welcomed by the Philadelphia community right away. Many friends and families gave me a hand and made my stay more enjoyable. Nevertheless, not everything was like that. As all recently arrived musicians, I had to make myself known and prove myself among musicians in jazz clubs to find work. I experimented bitter moments when other musicians tried to block my progress. The strongest difficulty has been the welfare of my family in Cuba. Since my youth, I have had to practically sustain them, even while being in this country. On the other hand, that's my main motivation to keep ahead helping them. In spite of all the inconveniences and the challenges of learning how the music industry works in this country, my personal development as a musician continues, I am working and have being able to present my art in different national and international forums.'

The City of Brotherly Love has proven to be so to Villafranca, although he's currently readying for a full frontal assault into the Big Apple. "Philadelphia," he says, "served me well as a starting point in this country. There is great community support for the arts, linked to several institutions and organizations. That's why many artists claim Philadelphia as their originating point. There are many talented musicians, whether it is jazz or Latin music. As far as I can tell, however, professional artists have to leave it in order to achieve a certain level in their career. Because Philly is a small city, it is good for gaining acceptance among musicians and become known in local places. The musical scene, on the other hand, lacks the venues where musicians can present their art. Here the artists can't grow professionally and that is the reason why many, myself included, have the need to migrate to New York in order to further their careers. Another problem that I see in Philadelphia is that the media doesn't celebrate local artists, showing more interest instead on musicians from other cities or countries."

It is rather obvious that this young musician is growing and he is quite aware of it. When asked how he had grown personally, intellectually and musically since leaving Cuba and how that influenced his Pimienta records release, he responded by saying: "I see a musical change, as well as an intellectual one. I have also noticed a personality change when dealing with musicians and friends that remain in my country. Because of the different cultures in the U.S., for example, my music is no longer an enclosed product as it is now free from the endemic musical restrictions of a culture that has lived isolated for so many years. I feel that my music and my intellect have expanded while exploring other terrains and musical possibilities. I not only assail popular Cuban music, or the integration of Afro Cuban music into jazz, but also search for roots from other Caribbean, South American and Asian cultures. I feel better freedom of expression and that's why in Incantations I wanted to reflect the diversity of what 'Latin' is, while understanding that it is impossible to represent a host with so many specific elements."

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